(Map note: Djibouti is the former French Somaliland colony.  In 1960 Somalia combined two former colonies: British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland.  The former British colony, seeking independent recognition since 1991,as an independent nation, is the territory to the east of Djibouti, extending to encompass the districts of Sanaag and Sool.)

During the thousand years before the 20th century, the Somali clans came to dominate the interior of the Horn of Africa. Their clan system suited their nomadic lives;  clan sub-groups moved with the rains through their traditional waterholes and grazing lands. They occasionally raided each others’ camps to fight for girls to marry and livestock to rustle.

But there were also desperate and bloody fights over water when the rains failed and wells went dry.  Somali boys were raised to be warriors ready to defend shrinking waterholes that could keep their families alive.  Women and children tended the animals.  Men fought.  Today, even for those who have left the nomad’s life behind, manly habits remain deeply rooted.

Somalis have always fought with Somalis.  There was little outside threat but starting with the colonial era, foreigners have become targets also.

Moving with the seasons, the Somalis developed no urban life except for the few small ports where Persian and Arab merchants traded with caravans from the interior.  Under Arab influence, titles like ‘sheikh’ and ‘emir’ were sometimes used in the towns, but they meant little beyond the town walls.

A rough egalitarianism among the clans gave each group its traditional territory. Somali politics were clan politics, most often played out inside of the big clans, where day-to-day contact and friction was more likely. Leadership was earned within the group, not necessarily inherited. Affiliation with one of the half dozen or so (depending on definitions) major clans remains nearly universal, providing an essential part of Somali identity. Some people are said to be drifting back to the clan system because — once again — there is no state to be loyal to.

During these thousand years the Somalis didn’t develop, and didn’t need, a political system that put clans above one another.  Strong clans dominated weak clans in the usual way, but even weak clans had rights and would fight to defend them to stay alive. Within the clan, rights to water and pasture were exercised by particular sub-groups.  When rights were violated fights broke out.  Sometimes a council of elders convened to mediate, then dissolved.

The Somalis had no continuing political institutions whose authority the clans acknowledged. As a result, the Somalis have had no experience with the kind of  political behavior that confronted them when the Europeans arrived. A bit of political DNA was missing. The concept of an institution to which the clans themselves might owe loyalty, that has authority over them — what we might call government — was not in their genes.  It is still developing.

Small numbers of Somalis did break out of the circuit of waterholes and camels.  Somali caravans regularly traveled into the Ethiopian interior. Wars between highland Ethiopian Christians and lowland Muslims sometimes drew in Somali warriors but they soon returned to their nomadic circuits, with cattle if victorious, complaining about the cold highlands.

These warriors often came from the area called the Ogaden, that would one day be part of Ethiopia.

Today’s Somalis take this as proof that the Ogaden has always belonged to Somalia, but the very idea of Somalia — as a clan, tribe or other entity — did not exist until the 20th century.  Somalis were Isaaq or Rahanweyn or Hawiye clan members.  Though almost all of Somalia’s population is ethnic Somali, many ethnic Somalis didn’t live in the area that has become Somalia.

Somalia’s wars with its neighbors are a direct consequence of this clash of perception.

England, France and Italy arrived in the 1880s. England and France each needed a port between the Suez Canal and their Asian colonies. France put its port at Djibouti, on the Horn. England used Aden on the Arabian side (now in Yemen) but needed an African source of fresh meat for Aden’s ship provisioning. The most convenient place was next door to Djibouti. Italy, a latecomer to colonialism, was grateful for leftovers and got the rest of the Horn. They established the three Somalilands.

France wanted only a port with a small land buffer.  It quickly (1897) struck a deal with Ethiopia marking their border  as a rough arc around the port. Today’s population is estimated at around half a million (State Dept, April 2009). Both as a colony and today, Djibouti’s relationship with Ethiopia has been based entirely on the port.

England struck a deal with some Somalis, vaguely offering the Queen’s ‘protection’ in exchange for vaguely described British coastal rights.  The Somalis wanted British protection in their clan fights. They didn’t think they were surrendering sovereignty, which had little meaning to them since it was unrelated to waterholes and grazing land. England wasn’t looking for sovereignty (yet) but wanted a little post where they could buy cattle to ship to Aden.  Both sides were unpleasantly surprised by what they got.

Poor and recently unified Italy was slow in developing its Somali colony.  Its grand ambitions had to wait until after World War I.

There is an apparent omission in the above outline.  While there may not have been anything resembling a government among the Somali clans, they were all Muslims, and acknowledged the spiritual authority of clerics that sometimes crossed clan lines.  But the clerics didn’t challenge clan authority nor did the clerics make a play for political power.

Things changed after the Christian Europeans arrived.

To be continued…